Two Lives I (Extract)

Extract of an article in Issue 2, May 12, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. To Jews, it was the War of Independence. To Arabs, it was a-Naqba (the catastrophe). Two Israelis, one Jewish and one Arab, reflect on the events of 1948. He Can't Go Home Again At 84, Abu Salim is a satisfied man. "In another year or two, I'll leave this world," he says. "That's OK, I'm ready. I have eight children, 22 grandchildren, and 2 great-grandchildren with another one on the way. My life isn't exactly the way I thought it would be when I was young and it has been hard, but it has been OK. I am healthy, I can work, and I am respected. That is almost enough." He holds court on the crimson-upholstered sofa in his home in the northern town of Me'iliya, wearing a buttoned blue cardigan sweater and plastic flip-flops. He smiles often and the smile is knowing and winsome, sometimes challenging. On a cool, sunny Saturday in late March, Abu Salim, whose full name is Elias Waqim but is widely known as Abu Salim, (the father of Salim, his firstborn son) is surrounded by the grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who dash in and out of the house. The younger ones approach him with a shy smile and he pulls out a candy from a hidden pocket. The teenage granddaughters serve traditional bitter coffee in small porcelain cups and chocolates. The wrappings of some of the chocolates, from a local confectionary, are printed in Arabic. Others, from the local supermarket, boast ultra-Orthodox kosher certification printed in Hebrew. "Not a lot of Jews come to hear my story," he says. "I want to tell it and I want you to listen." But his granddaughters, dressed in low-cut jeans and fashionable Empire-waist T-shirts, aren't interested. Discreetly, they roll their eyes in universal teenage sign language. They've heard it all before. His wife, after a perfunctory greeting, returns to the kitchen, where she is laboriously defrosting a refrigerator while listening intensely. Me'iliya, one of only two mostly Catholic villages in Israel (the other is Fassuta, also in the northwest Galilee) is a large village, with some 3,000 residents. Located 16 kilometers east of Nahariya, Me'iliya has the highest per-capita income in Israel's Arab sector, as well as the highest percentages of working women and individuals with school matriculation certificates and academic degrees. Abu Salim's house is simple and functional. A Christmas sock is still attached to a window sill and reproductions of the Mona Lisa and a Cezanne still life hang on the walls next to crucifixes. Outside, the small garden opens to views of Lebanon to the north and the Galilean hills to the south. On a clear day, the Mediterranean sparkles in the west. Even in late March, the air is still cold, but in the summer it will become oppressively hot. Abu Salim has the modest but commanding bearing of a man who's survived by his own wits and knows it. He speaks decisively. He sits tall and straight. He leaves his hands motionless in his lap, only occasionally using them for emphasis. His voice is raspy, but his diction is precise and he speaks in long paragraphs. Although he knows Hebrew ("I went to Ulpan like a new [Jewish] immigrant," he says), he has asked for a translator. But he is impatient with her when she interrupts him to translate his long statements and he corrects her frequently when he thinks her translation is imprecise. Six Israeli towns and cities now straddle the land once owned by the residents of the destroyed town of Bassa, near Acre, where Abu Salim was born. In Israeli parlance, Abu Salim is a "present absentee" - a person who, while a full citizen of Israel, was absent from his lands at the time when these lands were placed under the control of the Custodian of Absentees' Property. He is an "internal refugee," who lives in Israel yet is a refugee from his original home. In his mind, he still owns the dozens of tracts of land in the region that would have been passed on to him by his father. The state has offered him some compensation for the land, but he views this as selling his land: "This land is my father's legacy. Nothing else is left. I can't use the land - it's used by a kibbutz now. But I will never sell it." And he's been offered land that once belonged to other refugees or present absentees, but he won't take that, either. "These people might still be alive. Somewhere," he explains. Bassa dates back to ancient times, settled and resettled by conquerors throughout the ages. By the 1940s, it was a thriving community with large land reserves and a population of some 3,500 Christians and Muslims. Convoys to Lebanon passed through the town, and the railway was nearby. Bassa had, Abu Salim says, more than a dozen coffee shops and a few modest hotels, as well as a small local college and numerous magnificent churches and mosques. He remembers a happy, almost idyllic childhood. He had wanted to study and, with his family's support, he intended to continue on to college in Beirut. But during World War II, the economic restrictions that the British placed on the Arab residents of Palestine forced him to quit school and work to support his family; to his disappointment, he only completed 9th grade. He was in his early twenties as the struggle between the Arabs and Jews hurtled towards war. He remembers himself as a strong young man, full of energy, who loved to go to the sea and rarely thought about politics. He loved life, he said, and he enjoyed working in a British army camp and on the railroad lines. "But then the al-yehudi came," he says. "The Jews." It is strange and discomforting to hear oneself described in someone else's terms. By the summer of 1947, the Arabs, believing that the Jews were going to attack Bassa, had organized into cells in the villages and towns. A well-known coffee shop served as a clandestine information center, under the noses of both the British and the Jews. "I was a young man, filled with patriotism. I believed I was defending my homeland. It was frightening, but it was exciting, too," he says, remembering himself with humor and kindness. "They used to call us fituya - strong, young men." But their organization was hampered by infighting, local loyalties and conflicting clans. There were traitors who sold lands to the Jews and British soldiers who sold guns to both sides. He remembers every detail of those intrigues; they still matter to him after all these years. "If we had been organized like the Jews, we would not have suffered the naqba," he says soberly. "But I want to make something very clear," he continues intensely. "We never wanted to attack anyone. We had relationships with Jews before 1948. There weren't many friendships, true, but Jews came through our town all the time, and they were never attacked. We never wanted it to come out this way." By late April 1948, the villagers had heard of a massacre of unarmed civilians in the village of Deir Yassin, to the west of Jerusalem. And as May (the end of the British Mandate and the anticipated Israeli declaration of statehood) came closer, the Christians in Bassa were increasingly convinced that the Jews were going to win the impending war and that fighting was useless. "We thought, 'We've survived 400 years of the Turks and 30 years of the British. So we'll survive the Jews, too.'" Extract of an article in Issue 2, May 12, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.